Problems with small sewing contractors

This really isn’t my post. It was written by Nelly (user name CCM) and posted in the discussion forum. I asked to publish it on the front page because she describes the pungent realities of working with small (DE level, small sewing shops) contractors. I don’t really have any solutions either other than the ones I expressed in my book. Just because somebody is calling themselves a contractor doesn’t mean they actually know what they’re doing. As I repeatedly kvetch, there is no licensing in this business. Anyone can call themselves anything -a license to wreak havoc- posing a danger to themselves but mostly to others. Personally, I’d rather have a better handle on the problems of small contractors in the interests of potentially improving the quality of their output because we need them to grow. It’s in our best interests to educate them as we can. This is no less the attitude that Toyota takes with their suppliers and it works. Please (please) feel free to make suggestions or share any problems you’ve had with contractors. You can follow the thread in the forum here.

I’m new here, I found the blog last night and I had to sign up (staying up late paid off!) I bought Kathleen’s book and received it last week, I love it! Now you can imagine how excited I was when I found her blog!!! About me: I’m a stay at home mom, turned work at home, turned DE (kind of) I’m working with this sewing company.

Anyways, I know pretty much nothing about the business, only that I have this product I’ve made for the last year and a half and had been doing very good and now I decided to have someone make it for me, so that I can assist my customers better…

So, we found this lady that owns a sewing house, wonderful! She is very nice and has great customer service… I took two samples with me, one of them finished and closed, and the other open and unfinished, so that she could see what I did on the inside. She looked at it, and told me I was doing too much secure stitching to my product, and showed me a more efficient way that she could do it, “she has the equipment” and knowledge, I trusted her. I made it clear that I needed something very securely sewn and she seemed to understand at the time we first talked.

Her sample was perfect, beautiful, professional work! And strong stitching…So we ordered all the fabrics and supplies and had her make our line, how exciting!…Not really, I have all the pieces here and most of them are so poorly sewn. The stitching isn’t straight at all, except for the ones she made and when I did a test on one of them, I found the stitching to be very insecure. Today, I decided to give the seams a tug and it tears right away, so easily. I’m so disappointed, I didn’t want to be a difficult person to deal with and left it to her professional service to do the best with what I showed her I needed and everything was just thrown together. She was supposed to serge (the 4 thread merrow machine?) the inside of everything and I realized she didn’t, they just did an inside straight stitch and a top stitch which can really be a big liability for me.

In the meantime, I’m not making any money and losing time and customers for taking so long to have our products out in the market. She had told me that anything that was wrong she would fix, but should I send everything back so that is properly sewn? That would mean that they would have to rip and sew again, for the most part. I feel that is not fair that I have paid what I believe is a good price per piece and get stuck with a load of merchandise I wouldn’t sell to anyone because it is unsafe. Please help! Give me your expert advice.

In response to Christy’s supportive response, Nelly adds:

…my husband is afraid that now they will take for ever to fix them… they also have more fabric to make more, but I don’t want them to make them. Should I just take the fabric and tell them to fix these first? Or should I tell them I’m not using their service after they fix the ones I have? I’m going to be calling her today, do you have any advice as of what I should tell her?


I called her… after talking here, I got the courage to explain to her. She said to bring everything! Almost 200 pieces. I’m in shock. She says she will fix them all if I will send her a list of things that she has to do and send her some samples of what they did wrong. I told her not to work on the others until we fix this. I think if they do a good job, then I’ll let her finish making them, then for next time, I’ll get someone closer to home, the trip to her sewing place is a little over an hour one way, so it’s not convenient either.

Following are suggestions and comments from other visitors to the board (feel free to add yours):

Christy wrote (paraphrased):

You should send everything back so that it is properly sewn and do it pronto. You cannot run a business “feeling guilty” because someone did a poor job and you have to reprimand them. Just because they are “nice” doesn’t mean you have to “make them feel good”. As “the Donald” says: “It’s only business”. You are going to have to “toughen up”, if you want to be in this for the long haul…and get a contract in writing for any production work you have done. Let them know that they will NOT get paid until you have inspected the product AND the damaged product from the first run that has been repaired.

Mike C suggests:

Very small contractors can be tough to work with especially because they don’t often have quality control built into their system. Whenever we’ve tried to work with micro-factories, we tend to see spotty results. Some pieces will be good, some horrid and some unfixable.

It’s easy to find yourself in a situation where you are disagreeing with your contractor over what is “right” or “good enough.” It’s normal to put together a specification document with your goods that explain the details of how you expect the garments to come.

I believe Kathleen’s book talks about them to some degree. There is also a book called The Spec Manual by Michele Wesen Bryant and Diane DeMers which lays out what measurements to take and how to take them. It is targeted at apparel, so if you are making something else it may not be as applicable.

If you are able to finally communicate to your contractor how you want them made and get good results, I wouldn’t switch just to save a one hour drive. That what UPS Ground is for.

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  1. laurra says:

    Hi Christy,
    This is my first post as well.My DE book arrived a couple of days ago and i am very pleased with the content.But most of all I love the tutorials on this site.It was magical to see how the placet and cuff went together.I wonder if kathleen sews with a true 3/16 or a scant 3/16. getting of topic.The reason for my posting is that I am looking for small lot jobs to fill in while I start making bras and pretty knit T-shirts for trannys to sell on line . I have patternmaking softwear and have sewn for most of my life .I live in upst,ny fingerlakes region.If in the future You need someone to sew for you email me. laura peace PS I dont know if it is proper to advertize my services in this post.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Jess, she did.

    A better place to advertise is in the forum. The best way to sell your skills is to be helpful and useful.

    Normally I’d take a post like this down but I’m going to leave it up in case it’ll answer questions for somebody else who might have wondered the same thing. You can also post if you need to place work.

  3. Rayna says:

    Not only did they not follow specifications and finishing that you advised, they also made your inventory less valuable as they are not available during your market time frame. They should offer you a discount on future orders you make with them. Or a discount on the current order placed due to timing.

  4. Esther says:

    I have seen this happen many times because I have worked with small contractors myself. They usually don’t have adequately trained quality control people. I insist on a pre-production sample, production sample, and a random inspection of the finished goods. My company informs the contractor that everything must be up to spec or there will be chargebacks, payments withheld, etc. I back everything up with a good spec book prior to production. Showing up in the factory during production also helps, if you are especially nervous. It takes time to build a relationship with a trustworthy contractor and to train their workers in your product.

    Now, this is assuming you are working with a contractor in the US and can communicate easily. Working with contractors, say in China, poses a whole nother set of problems.

  5. another wish says:

    i work with a small contractor as well. during production i am always in and out of their shop inspecting at random as well as going over the finished production pieces with a fine toothed comb. i am conflicted because i feel like, as the manufacturer, i need to be on top of the working parts at all times, however i am paying them for their work and don’t feel like i should, essentially, be working QC for them.


  6. Carol Kimball says:


    Think of being “in and out of their shop inspecting at random as well as going over the finished production pieces with a fine toothed comb” as expediting a lean relationship. You can ease off a bit (but never entirely) as you get more comfortable together. Isn’t taking the time to set things up properly going to be worth it?

    I’ve had dealings with companies who were sloppy with most of their other contacts, but careful with me partly because they knew I’d check, and partly because of the regular contact/validation – they want appreciation as much as any of us. Build good relationships with the operators while you’re there – it all helps.

  7. Dionne says:

    I work with small companies all the time. I give my contrators Spec’s as well as standards on all the trims and threads they are to use (ie:tex 35 for topstiching, tex 35 tiger thread for overlocks). I ensure that I either send these items to them, or have the contractor send a sample to me. I sign off on submits, and if the contractor fails to use the items I approved, then I charge them back for repairing damages. I would never send back damaged items to the one who damaged them. I can’t trust them anymore, and I wouldn’t want them to touch anything ever again. It’s good if you have back up contractors.

  8. another wish says:


    I totally agree with your position on my interactions with the contractor. I, too, see the difference in their work product as a result of my presence in their shop. I also take time out to show that I appreciate them and their hard work, like donuts on Saturday morning.

  9. Carol,

    I don’t see how any kind of inspection, random or not has anything to do with lean. The idea of lean is that quality fails because the process is too difficult, boring, uncomfortable, dangerous, etc., not that you need to scare your workers into “working harder.”

    Not that I have any clue how you’d build truly lean relationships in this type of situation, because to become lean, you have to work closely with the actual workers (stitchers) to make real changes that eliminate the root causes, and that might mean BIG process changes that an independent contractor wouldn’t be okay with…like switching to team sewing or buying new equipment, or spending a lot more time in one-on-one training… Which means the contractor must be just as committed to lean as you are, right?

  10. Alison Cummins says:


    As an employee I can tell you that somebody demonstrating that they really care whether I get it right is inspiring, not scary. If they don’t care, why should I bother? If my own perfectionist spirit insists that I do it the way I think is right and they don’t care… well, *that’s* demotivating. If I’m going to work hard and go to some trouble, then I want that effort and professionalism to be appreciated. Like Carol appreciates what her contractors do for her.

  11. suzie says:

    I have launched a line that is doing fairly well that targets a niche market. Branding is essential for building a company. I need to have my product going to customers and distributors to be of impeccable quality and to look great. it’s essential . the whole point of being in this business is for when ppl see your brand to say “oh ya they have great quality it’s a great line”(at least if you want to be successful)

    I have been to 5 contractors in 2.5 years ( I am totally new in the business)one contractor basically took my money and did squat in which i took them to small claims court to only find out they went belly up! hard lesson to learn. anyway since then i have been to 4 different manufactures and these are not small contrators. i have the pre production samples done up and of course they look great. i have started to radomly show up and they just can’t do what i need to be produced. i can’t figure it oud. let me tell you the worst days and weeks are when i go into production i love what i do but contractors are gonna throw me over the edge. it is one excuse after the other. (oh by the way i’m producting 600-800 pieces/production)

    anywho, i stuck with one contractor for 3 runs- the first being great. they had a fantastic production manager who left after the first order and since he left they could never do it the same and had to usually redo 80% of the garments- nightmare!

    the lastest production which i am going thru this week i am paying 50% more to what i really hoped was going to be great and a smooth transition…and guess what? nah- it’s been the same old song and dance. i was hoping it would be easy but i have wasted over a week trying to get things done properly…in the end i am picking up production and bring it to a professional presser so I will (and need) repeat business….so much for saving time and paying that 50% more….ugggg

    i think it was my 4th manufacturer who also promised me the world again…only to find out he had serious anger issues–he literally scared me!! i was afraid to mention the mistakes because i thought he was gonna freak out on me!! i think they might have had the capability but i need to be comfortable with who i work with. thank god it was a small run – i got the heck out of there.

    i called the owner of a successful company which no longer exists because of one deal going bad but at one point he did 4 million in sales ( i think in his 2nd year of being in business)
    he told me he moved his office in his manufacturing plant because he had to keep his eye on production at all times. the point of me going on is that it is very very hard to build a relationship that does good work along with the dynamics. as you all know it’s essential to work in partnership and for your company to be successful. Steve also mentioned he now works as a liaison for comapanies and their manufacuteres!GREAT IDEA i think we need more liaison I asked Steve why he wasn’t here in my city. I would hire someone like him in a second, someone that knows the tricks of the trade. i can’t tell you how much that would save me in getting gray hair , and also time so i could be making those sales!!!

    i’m still looking for the right manufacturer, i am staying positive and i have a feeling i am getting close to what i need for my company to start building an empire. it takes passion and staying positive. hard at times but it’s the only reason why I still exist in this business.

    a wise friend and collegue made me put a postie on my monitor that says “ALL MY VENDORS WILL SCREW UP AND THIS IS WHY I WILL FOLLOW UP”

  12. Paula says:

    Hello, I am new in this blog, I am designer and I recently started my own children’s line. I am very exited and motivated to work especially after having four kids and not working for a while. I like every aspect of the business but the only problem I encountered recently is dealing with small sewing contractor who I can relay on, They did the samples for me, and they came great but we are trying to start with small production and they are always late, and I feel like I have to be calling them , checking on them even going to the shop to monitor what they are doing to speed them up, I have so much to do in addition to design and buy and advertise that I feel that it has to be a better way.

    Can anybody tell me how do they find their sewing contractor? I live in New York, I tried craiglist, putting adds in local newspapers and i have found some with very bad quality and the last one who I thought was great until it comes to the time they take into do things.

    Anyway, any thoughts, any tips??

    THanks, PAula

  13. fifilafoo says:

    I’ve been in business a very long time and have worked with people doing different things but now I’m concentrating on a gift ware item and all I need is someone who can sew straight stitches in straight lines and then the object must be assembled. At one time, I used to put an ad in a paper and get people who had a power machine in their home and all was right with my world. Now, it seems that those kind of people no longer exist that will do production work.

    I’ll demonstrate what I mean. One guy made a sample order for me of 24 pieces and it was beautifully done and I paid him and wanted to give him the next order. He declined saying he can make $40.00 an hour shortening trousers. He didn’t get the concept that with me, he’d have continual, repetitive work with no need of measuring or anything, just sewing and assembling.

    I am deeply grateful to this forum as I’ve been out there all alone wondering how I’m going to be able to carry on as, after going through three long lists of sewing contractors, 95% of those listed had discontinued telephone numbers. I suppose people have sold their machines and closed their sewing businesses due to large manufacturers giving work to offshore contractors, thus putting them out of business.

    I had a PERFECT working relationship with one sewer. He did everything right and we liked each other and we lived within six blocks of each other. Then, out of the blue, my stuff came back smelling of cigarette of cigar smoke. I was shocked as it is obvious, nobody wants to buy a brand new item and have it stink of smoke so that ended that relationship as he denied that it was possible as he kept the merchandise on the balcony away from the smoke.

    My current main sewer suddenly, out of the blue, started bringing back my finished goods reeking of perfume. I told her this was unacceptable and she denied she used perfume so I said, here, smell this and she sniffed the stinky perfumed item and said she couldn’t smell anything. I asked if she used a scented hand cream and she said no. I have to get rid of her even though she does beautiful work and we’ve worked together about twelve years.

    So I thought I’d come to a sewing contractor and so far, of the many disconnected numbers I’ve called only four had a live person answering the phone and they said I should call back tomorrow.

    In between my attempting to find a sewer, I tried a gal who didn’t pay attention to detail.

    It’s been great talking to you who have the same problems. I have orders here that need attending to but I’m not sure if the phone calls I will call tomorrow will be productive enough to take care of them.

    I have plenty of old customers to keep me going as I’m partially retired now but I do need work to pay for extras that I enjoy in my life but I never thought I’d have to worry about sewers as they were always available, professional and pleasing.

    You use the word “lean” and I don’t know what that means. Could anyone explain it in the way it is meant?

  14. like to sew says:

    Hi I’m new in this blog, I’m a sall-medium sewig contractor, and after read all your post, I’m feeling like you’ll been having hard times, like some of my customers (before they know me).
    I heard a lot of this stories all the time, but nobody says about all the no payed jobs that I have (as a contractor)
    For example one of my customers takes a month to pay for the invoice, it was a 850 pieces of goods, and all what he said was it takes time to process the checks because first we have to inspect the goods and then check quantities and the send the order aproved to the accounting dept, and then aprove the check , all this process takes a month>?????????
    Seriously this is reall anyways too many stories to tell…….
    Have a blessed they all of you and good look

  15. kimau says:

    Yes,I agree with both,the designers and contractors’comments.But please be fair and considerous.I’m a sewing contractor my self – at home(and i used to be a pattern maker also had a degree in Fashion,so i know all of the pains in this bussiness!),I know it’s very hard to find a good and responsible sewing contractor,but on the other hand, the contractors are also being pushed below the standard of their charges so i think that’s why most of the prod.turned out bad,let alone some designers they sign bounce cheques,or they take 3-6 mths to pay,without saying “sorry”.So please,designers,ask yourself how much you want to pay for the work,how much work you can give out to make the contractors to survive !I’m sad to see this bussiness turning difficult for both,and some of the designers are not very polite or seem to be well educated.And please contractors,wake up,it’s you who have destroyed your bussiness by charging to low then giving the works out to cheaper and non-experienced home sewers!
    Thank-you very much if all can realize what’s going on in this field of profession.Be fair and square !
    I’m sending this message just because i couldn’t stand accusations from the DESIGNERS any more.If you want to have good jobs done,then do not try to pay people so low,let’s say…$ 10 /hr or to suggest them to “fly to sew” with your samples/productions.Please,schools of Fashion, educate them better before you throw them out of school with no manners and respects for others, who are also struggling to make a living as them (well,but if they’re planning to go to live in China or India,then i have nothing esle to say.)

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